Afghan children clean cars for money, as well as sell chewing gum, chocolate and fortune-telling cards. (Supplied)

February 23, 2019

Jamileh has difficulty reaching the car window. She makes sure she stays on her toes to finish the job fast before the light turns green and the cars move on. She cleans the windshield and then rushes to clean other windows on the car. When she is done, the driver hands her 1,000 tomans, about 25 cents.

Jamileh is a nine-year-old Afghan girl who, along with other child relatives, was smuggled into Iran at a cost of $360. For the last few months, she has been working in Tehran. Girls are not usually sent to Iran by themselves and are often accompanied by a boy, a brother or a cousin.

“We are a family of five,” she says. “Me, my father, my mother and two brothers. My father has no job and no money to feed us. So he listened to the advice of neighbors and relatives and sent us to Iran so that we can work for a couple of years, make some money and then go back to our town.”

Jamileh doesn’t work alone at the intersection. “Usually I work with my brother Najib and my cousin Rahim. They are always on the lookout so that nobody will hurt me. At night we three and a couple other of my male cousins, who make money by searching the garbage and selling what they find to recyclers, go to the home of somebody from our town who lives behind the railroad station. In the morning we take the metro uptown to work.”

Twelve-year-old Salim also comes from Afghanistan and has recently arrived in Tehran. “Hey, auntie!” he shouts. “Want to buy a fortune-telling card?” He stands next to an intersection in a well-to-do neighborhood of northern Tehran in front of passers-by. He is especially interested in attracting the attention of women emerging from a luxury cosmetic shop, calling out to them to buy what he calls his fortune-telling cards — they are actually ghazals from the great Persian poet Hafez, which many Iranians traditionally turn to for inspiration and divination.

Salim’s family live in the western Afghan city of Herat. Three months ago he was smuggled into Iran along with 50 other children and adolescents and is now a street peddler in Tehran. “By selling a few pieces of gold and borrowing from my uncles, my mother put together one million tomans [$240] and gave it to a relative who knows the way, and is always traveling between Iran and Afghanistan, to take us across the border to Iran,” Salim says. “We work from morning until night to pay for our family’s expenses.”

Paper Napkins, Chewing Gum, Chocolate…

Salim says that each month he peddles something different, from his fortune-telling cards to paper napkins to chewing gum and chocolate. Working from 9am to 6pm, he makes somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 tomans ($12-17). On weekends he can usually make up to 400,000 tomans ($95). He sends the money home to Afghanistan so that his mother, his two younger sisters and his little brothers will not go hungry.

As for Salim himself, he makes do with the food that people or restaurants give him, or with some bread and cheese that he and a few of his friends buy together. At night he and a group of around 90 young Afghan peddlers sleep in a tunnel used to store recycling.

According to Salim, his mother told him that after working for a year and paying off their debts he can go back to Afghanistan and return to school and take care of his family.

Nowadays anybody who wanders through various intersections or squares on their way to parts of Tehran, especially in the center or in the north, or who travels by metro, will see a large number of Afghan boys and girls hawking merchandise — like Salim’s fortune-telling cards, chocolate or chewing gum. Or one can see them, like Jamileh, waiting at traffic lights with a sponge and a piece of cloth to clean car windows. As soon as someone buys something from one of the street sellers, though, the other kids selling goods hover around, trying to get people to buy what they have as well.

According to Habibollah Masoudi, the vice president of Iran’s Welfare Organization, there are more than 3,000 child laborers on the streets of Tehran — “70 percent of whom are foreigners and have no ID or papers.” [Persian link]. He says that taking care of these children requires the cooperation of various government agencies, including the interior and foreign ministries.

The Panhandling Mafia

“These children are smuggled in from Afghanistan, Pakistan and even Bangladesh by a panhandling mafia,” Hasan Lotfi, a representative from Hamadan, told the parliament’s news agency ICANA. He was critical of the fact that no single agency is responsible for handling the matter of child laborers and undocumented foreigners. “Unfortunately, the mafia uses this legal vacuum to easily bring children from neighboring countries to Tehran and take away a large portion of their income.” Lotfi added that some of these children who have no IDs are born to Iranian women who have married foreign men but there are no laws to handle the issue or support the children.

Ahmad Khaki, the deputy for social affairs at Tehran’s Welfare Bureau, agrees with Lotfi about shortcomings in the law and about the problems of tending to non-Iranian child laborers. “According to Iranian laws, children under 18 or those who are orphans cannot be sent over the border,” he told the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA). “And when these children are detained by the police, they often claim that they are orphans.”

Hossein, a social researcher who has studied child laborers in various Iranian cities, told IranWire: “There are many of these children in various cities across eastern and central Iran, from Zahedan, Birjand and Mashhad [in the east] to Tehran and Shiraz, and in each city they work according to local conditions. For example, in Birjand they beg for money in graveyards and at intersections. In [the holy city of] Mashhad they sell prayer sheets. In Tehran and some other cities they sell paper napkins, fortune-telling cards, chewing gum, chocolate and socks.”

Washing Gravestones

Hossein says he knows an 11-year-old Afghan girl who wears an old dress, cleans gravestones with a bottle of water and napkins and makes around 60,000 tomans, or close to $15, a day by doing this and through begging. According to him, these children are smuggled into Iran in groups by Afghan traffickers from various Afghan cities and provinces including Farah, Ghor, Herat, Faryab, Kandahar and Mazar Sharif. They are first taught how to appeal to people’s emotions and then they go to work. “Some of the traffickers rent these children,” he told IranWire, “meaning that the traffickers have not received any money from the families to smuggle them into Iran. Instead, at the end of the day, they get 50 to 60 percent of what the children make.”

“In cases where these children work as a group and are supervised by somebody, they are kept in one place. Every morning they are taken by van to different parts of the city and at sundown they are picked up,” Hossein said. According to him, after a few years, as the children grow older, they are often forced to join criminal gangs, and become thieves or sell drugs or alcohol in parks and on the streets.

Rights vs. the Budget

Like other people IranWire talked to, Hossein also pointed to the legal vacuum in Iran. “Officials are powerless to do anything about them,” Hossein told IranWire. “On one hand they have to face protests from legal entities that accuse them of violating the children’s rights. On the other hand, the municipalities and welfare officials have no budget to take care of them and cannot do anything to prevent the cities from becoming more repulsive and more hospitable to crime.”

The 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child promotes four core principles: Non-discrimination, the best interests of the child, respect for the child’s views, and the right to life, survival and development. Article 32 of the convention states that governments must “recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.” It states that parties signed up to the convention must provide for “a minimum age for admission to employment.”

Iran joined this convention in 1994 and accepted its obligations under it. But in practice, and after more than two decades, there are no accurate statistics available about Iranian and non-Iranian child laborers and their conditions in cities across the country. Instead what we see in Iranian cities, and especially in the capital Tehran, are boys and girls — in plain sight of officials, lawmakers and ordinary people — search for recyclables in trash cans or press passers-by to buy something from them. They are children like Salim, who goes out on the streets every day and shouts out: “Hey, auntie! Want to buy a fortune-telling card?”

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.